The message is clear: entrepreneurs create jobs and stimulate economies, at the same time, more of our future leaders are interested in pursuing entrepreneurism, be it traditional or social. New economic realities and student interest are driving growth in the area of entrepreneurship support and capacity building; this growth is creating strategic advantage for University and College recruitment efforts, student success, fund-raising activities and regional economic development. Based on the ongoing review of research, survey results and best practices, the following broad success factors have been developed as a “best case” template in building a best-in-class campus entrepreneurship support ecosystem:
1. Leadership and Strategy– First and foremost, there needs to be palatable support for entrepreneurship capacity building at all levels, especially the most senior. Entrepreneurship support initiatives must be more than a “new program.” The promotion of entrepreneurism and support for student ventures must be incorporated into strategy, policies and procedures across the institution. In addition, the leader of entrepreneurship initiatives must be adept at dealing within an academic institution, yet also be uniquely qualified as someone who is familiar with entrepreneurship and building the conditions that lead to entrepreneurial success.
2. Funding – There are two parts to funding: first, sustained and sufficient funding for entrepreneurship support; all successful projects require appropriate capacity and funding for supportive projects and initiatives, not just funding for the efforts of one individual. Second, funding to support student ventures is a key ingredient and should likely include some combination, or all of: direct funding support to help de-risk early ventures; micro financing programs; access to angel and venture capital networks; and, seamless path finding to available grants and loan programs.
3. Community Engagement – Key to the success of any new venture is access to relevant communities which might not be easily accessible. Most student entrepreneurs don’t have experience with, or connections into, these networks. Formal and informal networking opportunities are required for students (and faculty) to link to and learn from potential clients, collaborators, strategic partners, professionals and suppliers. Alumni networks are a key asset to be leveraged to this end.
4. Mentoring – Linked to community engagement, but important enough to have its own category, is mentoring. As with industry and professional networks, students don’t often have deep connections to the key individuals who can guide them along the entrepreneurial path. Formal mentor programs provide great opportunity for alumni involvement and community engagement. Interesting to note that in the most recent Princeton Review of the best Campus entrepreneurship programs, the top 25 institutions all had multiple mentoring programs.
5. Incubation – While a physical incubator or space is not essential, the benefits are very attractive. A formal incubator or “co-location” space provides for a leverage point for recruitment of students and funders, a focal point for broad cross-campus entrepreneurship initiatives and an opportunity for like-minds to benefit from the energy, synergies, peer competition and peer learning that often spurs great innovation.
6. Learning – Entrepreneurship courses are different than business courses. Entrepreneurship courses cannot just be re-purposed or rebranded business courses; they must have a focus on early-staged, entrepreneurial ventures. The goal of entrepreneurship training should not be to teach a laundry list of the standard content (e.g. Business planning, rules and regulations, etc.) is easily gleaned from internet searches. Instead, it should focus on teaching skills and process, shaping attitudes, and instilling confidence. Like a sport, this can only be done by having participants “do” it in a safe, low risk environment prior to launching.
Also vital to a healthy entrepreneurship learning environment is non-credit learning including opportunities for personal development. In addition, key activities should be facilitating lessons learned from guest speakers and extracurricular activities & competitions that provide an opportunity for experimentation and skills development. This non-credit, experiential learning may be even more important than typical for-credit courses that have to conform to academic rigor, testing and easy measurement of learning – things that don’t always sync with creating a learning environment of experimentation, learning through failure, and the fluidness of entrepreneurship.
7. Celebration – The promotion of the available opportunities and capacity, as well as the public celebration of success is key to long term sustainability. All stakeholders need to be well informed and engaged in the ongoing successes and activity of the initiative. Proactive communications and celebrations are vital for student recruitment, fund and sponsor development and for the student entrepreneurs and their business success.
Related to celebration is the notion of measurement and metrics of success. Many worthwhile initiatives can be implemented quickly and efficiently with lasting and measurable impact. However, it must be noted that most new ventures will fail and those that succeed will take years to demonstrate it – (fyi: longer than an election cycle.) What is equally important to the economic impact metrics generated by the success stories we all know of and celebrate, are the skills, mindsets and attitudes that are shaped in the process for all others as well, and unfortunately this is extremely difficult to measure and report on. Patience, confidence and the knowledge that we are shaping and impacting future generations is required. This impact is not short term endeavor, but it is certainly worthwhile. Many practices, best and otherwise, have provided an opportunity to learn and adapt. While some have a head start on entrepreneurship programming and branding, many are playing catch-up. Regardless of the relative stages of the institutions in their programming we must continue to support as many as we can and promote the value of entrepreneurship as well as the creation of an entrepreneurially minded workforce of leaders, whether they end up in new ventures, old ventures, not-for-profits or ngo’s.
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